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Fine Art Tips, Notes, and Information


  1. Finished Canvas Sizes

  2. Art Terms Defined

  3. Anatomy of Classical Painting

  4. Classical Realism: A Living American Tradition

  5. My Personal Painting Philosophy by Deborah Elmquist

  6. French  Academic Method

  7. Painters' Notes 



Finished Canvas Sizes

Fine art is valued and appreciated in any size by the true art aficionado.  While there are no hard and fast rules for selecting fine art, referring to an art piece size by a name may be helpful when judging fine art piece display areas and uses.  We offer these suggestions to aid you when making your fine art selections and display area decisions.

  • Gift Art - Gift Art is frequently smaller pieces with image sizes of 4X5 and 5X7 not  incorporating a typical frame.   Art pieces of the Gift Art size are easily shipped or packed in a suitcase for easy traveling
  • Table Top - Table Top art is typically canvas sizes of 8X10 to 12X18.  Add the extra dimensions  for the selected art frame to determine the display size.
  • Wall Decor Art - While all art pieces my be displayed on the walls of our homes, some art piece by their  very size demand  a wall space to be properly displayed and appreciated.  Below are suggestions for Wall  Decor Art that demand prominent display space in your home.
    • Classic - Classic Art Pieces are typically 16X20 to 24X30 in canvas size and frequently framed in large, ornate, gold leaf frames.  The Classic Art Piece size is considered by some as the "entry level" wall decor art size.
    • Signature - Signature Art Pieces are usually canvas sizes ranging from 30X40 to 40X50.  With framing added to the canvas dimension the Signature Art Piece becomes a true  wall decor  feature for any fine home.   Framing may be "simple" to very ornate, and is frequently gold leaf. 
    • Master Works - Master Works are very large fine art pieces typically 48X60 and larger with frame dimensions additional.   Master Works, dependent upon style, may be framed or unframed. 

Defining Art Terms

  • Art Style, School, Movement, and Era - These terms are bantered about endlessly it seems with each user having his/her own definition, and at times these terms are used almost interchangeably.  There are however subtle differences in the meanings of these terms and since words have meaning we should be able to use these terms correctly.


    • Style - Style is a term that can refer to several qualities or aspects of an art piece.  Style can mean the techniques used in the creation of the work, i.e. Pointillism,  the use of colored dots to create a blending of color and shape when viewed from a distance, or Chiaroscuro and Sfumato (see Classical Painting Styles below).  Style may also be applied to an underlying philosophy expressed by the artist in his works.

    • School -  A School on the other hand is usually a group of artist that share some common element like and as simply as geographic area, or the same teacher, or perhaps use the same or very similar style, or painting method.  A school is usually identified by and takes on the name of the common element like the name of a city or the geographical area, the teacher, or the style itself, e.g. Flemish School.

    • Movement - A movement is similar to a School in that it also is a group of artist that share a common element, however, the distinguishing feature is that the group does not necessarily share the same geographical location, e.g. Modernism, Cubism, etc.

    • Era - Era is perhaps the easiest term to understand in that an era is a measured period of time (usually tens or hundreds of years) having a beginning and end.  The Baroque Ear is an example beginning in the very late sixteenth century and ending in the mid eighteenth century.


  • Classical Painting Styles - There are two painting styles most frequently associated with the Old Masters; Chiaroscuro and Sfumato.  Fundamentally very different in nature, today these styles are still somehow confused in meaning and by identity of the artists who developed them and used them.


    • Sfumato -  Sfumato is a subtle gradation of tone used to obscure sharp edges and to develop the relationship of light and shadow areas, i.e. light shape, shadow shape, of a painting.  Leonardo da Vinci was the master of Sfumato, and perhaps the best example of his style is the Mona Lisa.

    • Chiaroscuro - Chiaroscuro in meaning is literally "Light-Dark" and is just the opposite of Sfumato.  The style makes use of dramatic differences of contrast and color with sharp light and shadow edges with little to no gradation.  The primary subject has what we might call today a spot light on it.  Rembrandt is perhaps the best known user of Chiaroscuro, however Caravaggio and Correggio are credited with the origins of the style.




Anatomy of Classical Painting*

  • Methods and Techniques of the Old Masters - While there is much written about many of the Old Masters and their art works there are but a few (if any validated) scraps of writings or notes in existence today in their own hand that describe the methods and techniques they developed and used.  Most of what we think we know of their practices is gleaned primarily from visual analysis of available paintings, the use of current hi-tech imaging, and the interpretation of unfinished canvases, or partially finished paintings, and available studio remnants. The means of passing on technical information and studio practices was accomplished through the tradition of apprenticeship, the historical method of all crafts and professions of the ages.  Apprentices usually dedicated between four to six years with their teachers and some even longer.  However, analysis of some Old Masters paintings has revealed common elements and clues to the materials and methodology used.  It may be said that the methods and techniques used were more based upon practicality and necessity of the period rather then a dominate philosophy.  The Old Masters simply did not have the convenience of paint in tubes, refrigeration, and technologies that we take for granted today.  Paints were hand made and only in the quantities expected to be used in a days work.  So the step-staging methods used in the creative process was based upon conservation as much as it was on imaginative and creative talent. The most ardent followers and practitioners of the Classical Methods of the Old Master today usually agree on a seven step process that includes many if not all of the following steps and stages: canvas Sizing and Grounding, Drawing (Inventing), Imprimatura layer, Gilding,  Podmalyovok layer, Lessirovk layer, a Grisaille or Dead Layer Under-painting, Live Color layer's) (1 and 2), Finishing layers, Glazing layers, and finally Varnishing (1 and 2).  To better understand the process, some definitions are in order.


    • Sizing - Sizing is the process of sealing a raw canvas support in preparation to receive one or more Grounding layers of paint. Sizing is needed because Oils from the Grounding Layers could damage the canvas if applied directly. Sizing thus creates a protective layer between the canvas and Grounding layers.  Classical Sizing is a glue substance made from  rabbit hide clippings, pig-skin, or parchment.  In its dry form Sizing is a crystalline substance, or thin sheets. The granules (crystals) or sheets are soaked in fresh clean water. The water is heated, but not boiled, melting the Sizing compound.  When properly prepared to the consistency of honey it is ready to apply to the raw canvas using a palette knife being sure to force the Sizing into the grain of the canvas then cooled and allowed to thoroughly dry.

    • Grounding - Grounding (Grounds), the application of base layers of paint, was frequently applied to the Sized canvas in two layers.  The Ground layers usually consisted of a mixture of palette scrapings and brush cleaning jar sediments, and perhaps various remnant pigments producing a rather dirty earthy colored paint.  Conservation of material was always important as the material used were not inexpensive.  The second layer of the Ground, frequently a mixture of lead white and carbon black, is much lighter in tone than Ground layer one.  The purpose of the Ground is to create a smooth surface upon which to begin the actual process of painting.

    • Imprimatura - Imprimatura, meaning "what goes before" is the first true layer of the painting (Layer One in a seven layer process).  The purpose of the Imprimatura layer is to create and establishing the overall tonal value (lightness or darkness) of the composition and may be keyed to a neutral tone or mid tone relative to the subject and it's lighting condition.  In addition, the Imprimatura layer works as a harmonizing layer for the subsequent upper layers.

    • Drawing (Inventing) - Drawing is the laying in of the basic shape and form of the subject directly (a line drawing) or by Cartooning on to the Grounded and Toned canvas in order to establish the various elements of the composition in perspective and placement and to serve as a guide for the subsequent stages of the work.  The Drawing is frequently a transfer of a full size drawing on paper from the paper to the canvas by a tracing process (Cartooning) and worked up to the desired detail.  The drawing may also be a loose sketch of the subject directly on the canvas using paint, chalk, charcoal, or ink.  The use of chalk or charcoal facilitates making corrections as these materials can easily be whipped away as needed.

    • Under-painting - The Under-painting techniques of Grisaille, Verdaccio, and Dead Color are variations of the same or similar technique with subtle differences.  Grisaille (meaning "all in gray"), Dead Color (also usually in grays), Verdaccio (mixtures of gray/greens), and a two part under-painting, Podmalyovok and Lessirovk, that is frequently in mixtures of Burnt Umber but applied with subtle differences of brush size and paint stokes, complete the Under-painting layer, or layers.   In its simplest form an Under-painting is a monochrome version (or nearly so) of the final painting (a mass drawing) intended to establish the tonal detail (the tonal dynamic range) of the composition, give volume and substance to it's form, and to establish and create the illusion of illumination.

    • Live Color - The Live Color layer (also known and the Body Color layer, and Work-up layer) is a striking contrast to the Dead Layer in that it is not monochrome, but rather is the full color stage of the painting that gives each element of the composition its correct color and rendering, and completes final details of subject form.

    • Glazing - Glazing is the application of a thinned paint layer over an already existing dry paint layer.  The sub layer may be opaque or another glaze layer.  Glazing creates the unique quality that is best described as the illusion of translucence; this quality is impossible to create using the direct painting technique, or alla Prima method.  Glazing at first thought is very simple to do, but in practice is rather complex requiring personal patience, study, and practice.

    • Finishing -  The Finishing layer is the layer that the artist lays in the final textures of the composition, applied highlights, bright reflections, additional glazes (glaze, semiglaze, scrumble) as needed, and finally the artist's signature.  Addition color (pure) may also be added and minor corrections made to finalize the artist's vision.  The completed composition is set to rest for a period of not less than six months so that all layers may become thoroughly dry and mature (cured).

    • Varnishing -  Varnishing is the final application layer.  A Damar varnish is applied in two layers, brushed on with a wide varnishing brush in opposite directions, and allowed to dry in a lint free environment until fully cured (three to six months).  At this stage the completed composition is ready for framing and display.

    *Editor's Note:  While this is a rather short description of the Anatomy of Classical Painting, the methods of the Old Masters should not be interpreted as a form of religious dogma that must be explicitly followed without question.  There are many differences of opinion, taste, and understanding among artists today just as there was in the period of those that we now call the Old Masters.  Vermeer, Rembrandt, and da Vinci (to name but a few) all experimented with their methods, techniques, and materials.  To say or insist that all Classical painting today must be executed in a seven step process and then in exactly the same way each an every time is to be myopic in our understanding of classical methods.  Remember the story of the great-granddaughter who when making a roast cuts off the ends of the roast each and every time only to learn that great-grandma cut off her roast ends only because she had a small roasting pan and the cutting had nothing to do at all with the taste, quality, or look of the roast when finally finished and ready to eat and to enjoy.  The Classical art of the Old Masters is beautiful to see and appreciate not necessarily because it was done in five, seven, or even nine steps.  Rather, I think, it is beautiful to see because the creators of Classical art were people of exceptional talent, creativeness, and imagination as well as masters of their craft.  We  inherently appreciate such qualities as artist-observers, and as growing artist we strive to reach those same heights of transcendent beauty, quality, and craftsmanship that we lovingly observe.



Classical Realism: A Living American Tradition*

By Stephen Gjertson and Kirk Richards
Publication: American Artist
Date: Wednesday, September 1, 2004

  • The term Classical Realism originated with Richard F. Lack, a Minnesota artist who studied with Boston painter R. H. Ives Gammell during the early 1950's.  In 1969 Lack established Atelier Lack, an influential studio-school of fine art in Minneapolis that was patterned after the ateliers of 19th-century Paris and the teaching of the Boston Impressionists.  He coined the expression to differentiate the realism of the heirs of the Boston tradition from that of other representational artists.  It was first used as the title of the 1982 exhibition "Classical Realism: The Other Twentieth Century."  Lack knew that within the context of art history, Classical Realism was an oxymoron.  Throughout history, the schools of Classicism and Realism  have opposed each other.  Classicists believed that the art of ancient Greece and Rome set the standard by which all art should be judged.  An idealization of nature for the sake of beauty and proportion and a clear and logical expression of their subjects through refined drawing, form, and technical methods characterized their work.  Realists on the other hand, distained beauty of both the subject and methods.  They preferred the depiction of common themes, with little or no idealization.  When historical themes were depicted, they were rarely idealized for the sake of beauty.  Nevertheless, Lack combined the tenets of classicism and realism with the principles of Boston Impressionism to describe an artistic point of view characterized by an overall love and respect for the great traditions of Western art.  He grounded his concept in the subtle representation of nature, a representation that is only possible by a person with a trained and sensitive eye.  Classical Realists often idealize or stylize their work for the sake of beauty and harmony.  Their work is classical because it exhibits a preference for order, beauty, harmony, and completeness; it is realist because its basic vocabulary come from the representation of nature.  The American Society of Classical Realism (ASCR) was founded in 1989 by Lack and several other artists, educators, and connoisseurs devoted to the promotion of accomplished artists working within the tradition of Western European academic and American Impressionist art.  Broadly speaking, within the Western tradition there are five fundamental artistic categories: still life, landscape, portrait, genre, and imaginative painting.  Members of the ASCR Guild of Artists are practitioners of these disciplines, some specializing in one or two, others working within several  or even all of the genres.

    *Editor's Note:  The above article is presented here to define the term Classical Realism, to  explain the origins of the term, and to give credit to Richard F. Lack, the originator of the term.  We also thank the writers of the original article, Stephen Gjertson and Kirk Richards for their fine work.  And we thank the American Artist magazine for allowing our website to use the article.  The article is presented here in a truncated version.  Not included here are photos of paintings by Lack and other ASCR members along with descriptions of each painting by the artist.  While the descriptions of each painting were available from our source the associated pictures were not, therefore that portion of the original article is not presented here.





My Personal Painting Philosophy
by Deborah Elmquist

  • I am often asked by those who purchase my paintings, or who are painters themselves, how do I paint?  What do I think about when I paint a 'picture'?  What is the meaning of my work?  To answer these and other questions that my audience has expressed I offer these foundational words about my work and painting in general:

    Creating a painting is a visual editorial process.  How I practice my editorial process is my personal style (or method) of oil painting and it is as much a part of me as is my personality and the quality of my character.

    While I am firmly grounded in and appreciate the methods and techniques of the Old Maters of the Flemish and Venetian Schools of oil painting, (and I include the French Academy painters here as well) I do not practice an absolute seven step process each and every time I create a painting, nor (when I teach) do I teach an absolute step, stage, method of painting.  However, as a firm believer in  learning the fundamentals of the craft of traditional oil painting---and including drawing---it is the fundamentals of the craft of oil painting that I practice and teach not a particular "religion" of oil painting as the one true way to paint.   And, it is these fundamentals that I practice when painting.

    When teaching oil painting, it is my roll as teacher to assist my students to develop strategies with which to view the world as artists, but firmly grounded in the fundamentals of the craft of oil painting, again, beginning with drawing.  It is one thing to break the "rules" in ignorance; it's another thing to break them with purpose of concept.  Once a student has mastered the fundamentals (and that may take quite some time) the student is free then to become the artist within him or herself, to think for ones self, and to view the world as differently as he or she wishes, and finally to grow in his or her own direction and to do it with passion.  As a teacher of the art of oil painting, what better mission can there be!

    Now, for me personally as a painter, I am first and editor of light!  As a painter I do not just paint what I see, but rather I interpret what I see through the language of Shape (light-shape-shadow shape), Tonal Value (that is the range of, or the gradation of, gray tones ranging between the lightest light and the deepest dark black; this is the dynamic range of the subject), and Edges (sharp edges, soft edges, lost edges); a fourth element, Color (in all its forms---temperature, hue, and saturation), is the 'frosting on the cake' if you will, but it is not an element that is necessary in order for us to identify or to recognize the subject for what it is.

    Second, I am an editor of visual concept!  Remember, I do not paint everything that I see.  I do not paint every object that is in my field of view, nor do I paint every detail of the objects within my field of view.  Rather, I interpret what I see using the language of Selective Focus, Spatial Relationship, and Light Path to complete and to tell my visual message or story.  (I might add that because all good art has a message or story, that all good art is fundamentally narrative.)  At its best the editorial process creates a harmony between the techniques used to create the painting and the subject matter of the painting that transcends both and speaks a language of beauty that hold the viewer transfixed, returning again and again, as if by some magical energy, to understand its story and to learn its secrets, moving the viewer emotionally as well as intellectually.

    Finally, Brush Strokes: I am an editor of brush stokes!  Brush strokes are like fingerprints; they are individual, personal, and unique to each painter.  Brush strokes too have qualities of form, texture, shape, value, direction, density, and counterpoint among other qualities.  At times there seems to be a kind of mystical communication between myself, my subject, and the vision I have for the completed painting and the direction and weight of my hand and the movement of the brush when applying paint to the canvas.  I again interpret what I see through my brush strokes communicating the characteristics and qualities of my subject to the viewer of the painting through the language of brush strokes.   This "process" is deliberate and automatic all at the same time.

    In essence, because of and through the editorial process, all painting is abstract!  This fact is difficult to grasp perhaps, but it is directly affecting the depth and meaning of a painting as a work of art.  And yet another fact:  As artists the less personal and the more universal our motive becomes in the creative process the more compelling and sublime our visual story becomes.  This is the fundamental difference I think between just a painting and a great painting---it is the universal truth that is found in our best works of art, and it is the reason that compels us to paint in the first place.  It is not a process of a painting that makes painting art, but rather the journey of the mind of the artist working the brush.




Editor's Note:  Traditional Oil Painting, Advanced Techniques and Concepts from the Renaissance to the Present, by Virgil Elliott is an extraordinary book that is a "must read" and "must have" for any serious collector of fine art oil painting and the artist-oil painter alike.  I have read Mr. Elliott's book from cover-to-cover more than once and recommend it highly and without reservation!  We extend our thoughts of gratitude, respect, and appreciation and our thank you too to Mr. Elliott for his fine work as exemplified here in the excerpt presented, and to Watson-Guptill Publications, a Division of VNU Business Media, Inc. New York, NY for printing a quality "must have" book.  I invite you to use the links below to place your order to purchase Mr. Elliott's book today.  D.M.E.

Available from Amazon and Barns&Noble by using the links below

French Academic Method
(from Chapter Six, page 103)

 Traditional Oil Painting
Advanced Techniques and Concepts
from the Renaissance to the Present


(Please read the Editor's Note above. Thank you!)

  • In the interest of thoroughness, it is necessary to include the methods of the French Academics of the nineteenth century; however, the reader will undoubtedly notice some redundancy, in that there are many parallels between the methods of Bouguereau and those of the academic painters in general.  There are also differences to be noted.  Broken down into stages, the general procedures prescribed by the Academics in the development of a picture are expressed as follows:

    Croquis: essentially a small thumbnail sketch executed from imagination, the purpose of which is to begin the process with a general design; usually done in pencil on paper.

    Esquisse: a small color sketch in oils, also done from imagination, following the design of the croquis, to help the artist decide on a color scheme and better visualize what the painting might look like.  No detail is attempted in the esquisse; only masses of color, broadly rendered in a simplified manner.

    Etude: a study of each element in the painting that might warrant it, in isolation, executed in either charcoal, charcoal and chalk, oil grisaille, and/or full color in oils, with high detail, to be used as reference material in the painting of the larger, final, picture.  These are done from direct observation of posed models, props, costumes on mannequins, or whatever is necessary in order to ensure that the images are accurate.

    Frottie (sometimes spelled frottis): the monochrome blocking-in of the major masses of dark and light on the canvas itself, either over a drawing or in place of drawing, done in thin oil paint, usually an umber, scrubbed on somewhat summarily and sketchily to establish the design of the picture on the canvas.  This was generally done from the reference material previously executed, rather than from life, although there were likely to have been exceptions.

    Ebauche: essentially an underpainting to develop the image nearer to completion, in preparation for the final stage.  More than one approach was used for the ebauche.  Some artist (such as Nicholas, Poussin, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres) worked in grisaille in this stage, leaving color for the final stage, while they modeled the forms solidly with opaque grays; some blocked in general areas of color broadly, in color duller than the final intensity called for, in what has been termed "dead coloring," the intention being to bring up the chroma in the final stage where needed; and still others preferred to block in the color more brightly that the final effect desired and then toned it down where necessary in the last stage by going over it with a duller color or grays.  Each variation had its advantages, and it was up to the artist to determine which method would be best suited for a given picture.  Regardless, the end result was generally smoothed out by scraping or by other means, to provide a smooth surface for the final layer of paint, and not detail or great refinement was introduced until the last phase.

    Fini: the culmination of the process, wherein the images were brought into as full focus as the artist required, the forms refined, the modeling developed to finish, the accents and refinements of color attended to, details rendered, facial expressions adjusted, subtleties added, etc., by every means at the painter's disposal, including glazing, scumbling, and opaque painting both thick and thin.  This stage usually required several setting, each to further refine what had been done previously, until the desired effect was achieved to the artist's satisfaction.  In the case of most of the French academics, the best results were obtained when working from direct observation as much as possible during this stage of the work.  This author most often ends the process by looking at nothing but the painting itself for the final adjustments, with an eye to pictorial unity and harmony.  It is probable that other work, or have worked in this way as well.




  • Painters' Notes :

    Note #1

    Re-stretching a canvas with a completed painting on it is not the same as stretching an un-sized and un-primed canvas that has yet to be painted upon.  Successive applications of size, grounds, paint layers, and varnish layers create a multi-layered structure, a far more complicated structure then that of raw canvas.  With each layer, the canvas weave is restricted and the ability to stretch or flex this structure without damage is very limited.  Without great care and proper procedures, re-stretching a painting will inevitably introduce cracking, paint delamination, and paint lifting.  Even in the best of working environments and conditions some damage will be introduced by re-stretching a completed painting.

    Second, NEVER re-stretch an existing painting, COLD!  Re-stretching a painting cold is the worst thing that any artist, gallery owner, or framer could possibly do.  All painting materials have the ability to swell and or contract to some degree dependent upon the paintings environment.  If one must re-stretch an existing painting it is suggested that the painting be allowed to acclimate to its working environment for at least 24 hours or more before re-stretching is attempted, and then maintain the environment during and after the stretching process is completed.  Allowing the painting to acclimate to its environment---to warm, if you will---will improve paint and canvas flexibility and make the re-stretching process much easier and safer.   And, remember too, to slowly coax the painting to stretch instead of forcing it to stretch.  These suggestions apply to re-keying stretcher strips as well to tauten a canvas! 

    Better still, if you must re-stretch a completed painting, consult a painting conservator experienced in the processes of re-stretching of completed paintings.  I cannot stress this recommendation more highly!  The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in Washington, D.C. for example maintains a directory of conservators, providing referral information by specialty and geographic location.  And even better still, It is suggest that one never re-stretch a completed painting ever!  What’s the point, anyway!  D. M. E.

    Note #2

    Many fine art oil-painters these days purchase “ready-made” canvases for their work simply because doing so is more affordable both in time and money. However, it is important that the artist know something about what their work is going to be painted upon.

    A painting may be created upon linen canvas, cotton, wood panel, or even synthetic fabric canvases.  Of these painting supports, linen has traditionally been and remains today the natural fabric of choice by most fine art painters.  The advantages of linen fabric are many including durability, strength, elasticity, and resistance to environmental conditions such as bacterial growth to site just a few of the characteristic of an all-linen thread fabric.  Cotton canvases do not offer these qualities.

    Linen may be combined with other natural fibers to achieve a variety of textures, or to make the canvas more affordable for the artist.  To make the fabric more affordable, linen is sometimes combined, or blended with hemp, jute, or synthetic fibers.  However, almost all of these ‘secondary’ fibers also make the fabric of lesser quality than pure all-linen canvas.  My personal preference is for pure linen canvas; manually stretched on sturdy stretcher bars for superior strength and durability and then prepared and primed in the traditional manner.

    Note #3 

    If you stretch your own canvas, here are some pointers to consider when selecting wood stretchers and strainers.

    Wood for stretchers or strainers should be perfectly straight, free of knots and relatively lightweight. An ideal wood for stretchers is basswood. It is a dimensionally stable hardwood of uniform grain that is soft, easy to cut and tool, does not splinter, and sands nicely. Basswood incorporates many of the benefits of both hard and soft woods. Another favorable quality is that basswood does not emit significant amounts of acidic resin.

    To guard against wood acidity migrating from the wood stretchers to the canvases over time, it is generally a good idea to seal the strainer or stretcher with a thin isolating coat of a resin sealer. GOLDEN MSA Varnish w/UVLS (Gloss) may be used diluted (one part stock solution to 2 parts VM&P Naphtha solvent) and brushed liberally onto the wood members.

    When sealing wood, be sure to wear a protective respirator (one with charcoal-activated cartridges that absorb organic vapors), work under well ventilated conditions with no open flame or heat sources, and be sure to allow a day or two for the sealed wood to dry fully


    Note #4

    Preparing the Traditional Canvas

    Artists who are concerned with making paintings permanent should carefully consider the quality of each of their “paint” layers beginning with the canvas size and ground. 


    Before an oil painting ground is applied, the canvas is sealed with a size. The size seals the porous fabric and isolates it from the ground and future oil paint layers.  Linen and cotton canvases will prematurely rot without a size layer. Only fabric supports need sizing; wood panels need only a ground. PVA Size (poly vinyl acetate glue), diluted with distilled water, is a good contemporary size for a canvas fabric support.

    Conservation scientists recommend painters use neutral pH PVA size on linen and canvas instead of rabbit skin glue. PVA provides a good size layer that seals the fabric but does not re-absorb atmospheric moisture, and does not swell and shrink, as dose rabbit skin glue size. Applying one layer of PVA Size to both the front and back of the fabric is recommended as best practice.


    Ground is the foundation of an oil painting.  For more than five centuries oil grounds have been a simple mixture of chalk (in Northern Europe) or gypsum (in Italy), white lead and linseed oil. By adding a white oil ground, painters created a reflective surface that made their colors look brighter.

    Chalk is a calcium carbonate, a naturally occurring material found in fossilized shell deposits. Premium grade chalk called "champagne" was used to make "Paris Chalk." Gypsum and chalk do not make a suitable white pigment because of its poor color and transparency, but in making a gesso opacity is not an issue because so many layers can be applied.

    Traditional Gesso  

    Gesso is Italian for gypsum.  Gypsum is a calcium sulphate dihydrate a naturally occurring material found near salt deposits. Calcined gypsum, also called plaster of Paris, when mixed with animal glue, makes a luminous painting surface for egg tempera and for paintings on wood panels. Medieval painters applied as many as ten layers of gesso on wood panels. By painting alla prima with tempera on gessoed panels they could create "portable" frescoes. Gesso on wood panels makes a good surface for paintings that include burnishing and gilding techniques.

    Traditional Gesso was not used as a ground for oil painting on linen canvas. The traditional primer for oil painting is an oil ground (See above). Modern "gesso" was formulated by manufacturers of acrylic polymer primer about fifty years ago. Why manufacturers decided to call acrylic primer "gesso," a conservator suggested that the marketing departments wanted to associate the new acrylic primer with painting tradition so oil painters would use it. Whatever the reason, the name "gesso" continues to cause confusion.  An Acrylic "gesso" does not require a size under-layer.




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